She’s Sister Paulinus Oakes… no-nonsense nun with a big heart

Published 12:03 am Sunday, August 21, 2011

She was christened Mildred, but for over 60 years she’s been known as Sister Paulinus. This is the first of a two-part story about her.

“I’m Sister Paulinus Oakes,” the lady in the smart business suit, accented with matching purse and heels, introduced herself. Perhaps there was a bit of disbelief, maybe a quizzical look on the other person’s face, so Sister Paulinus added, “I’m an undercover nun.”

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If there’s a stereotyped image of a nun — perhaps a shy, sweet, quiet lady in almost perpetual prayer wearing a long, black garment with a headpiece that barely shows her face — then you’re way behind the times. That image went out with Vatican II.

And Sister Paulinus will tell you how glad she is of the change from the old habits — which is what they called the garb worn by the nuns — because she considered them cumbersome, a barrier to meeting and helping others, plus they were awfully hot and hard to keep clean.

“You’re supposed to act like a Christian woman anyway, so why do you have to be dressed in a distinctive way?” she surmised.

She’s not tall — she said she is shorter than many of the students she taught. Her gray hair is cut short, too — no time to fool with fixing it. She wears a cross on a chain around her neck, but you realize immediately it isn’t jewelry. When she talks, which is a lot, her mind races forward to the next subject so that she sometimes interrupts her own sentences. She loves to laugh, and she’s a people person dedicated to helping others. If she had a favorite flower, it would have to be impatiens just because of the name.

Sister Paulinus was born here, grew up here and was educated at St. Francis Xavier Academy. She now lives in Jackson in a retirement home, “not in St. Louis with a group of sisters that pray every day. I miss that, but I want my ministry to be in Mississippi.”

Vicksburg will always be home despite the fact that as a young lady she thought, “I was glad to get out of this one-horse town — but I was glad to come back!” The history, the uniqueness shared by towns up and down the river, the support of the community — “Not just the Catholic community” — for the churches and schools — “it’s good to be a part of it.”

She entered the world on Christmas Eve of 1931, the only child of Paul and Beatrice Adams Oakes. They had been married 13 years, but she insists there was “no chance of me being spoiled. I couldn’t play one against the other.”

She was christened Mildred at St. Paul Catholic Church, but her dad often called her Sugar, probably a misnomer, for she admits, “I was BAD. I was not a perfect child. I was really bad.”

They lived out on South Washington Street, and she went to a small parochial school, St. Michael’s, through the fourth grade. Her father, quite a handyman, made playground equipment for the school, which was staffed by nuns from the Sisters of Mercy.

The worst trouble she got into at school, she said, was when she did something bad, and the teacher sent her to the cloak room, “and she must have forgotten me. I don’t know. But I got hungry, so I ate her lunch.”

Later on, downtown at St. Francis, someone dared her to set off a large firecracker in the enclosed area by the boiler. Of course she took the dare, and until now they’ve never known who did it.

“There was no damage, but there was a lot of noise,” she laughed.

Her love of sports was evident when she was just a little girl. She and her friends played ball in the middle of Central Avenue off South Washington because they had nowhere else to go and there were no cars, thus the danger was minimal.

At St. Francis she played in the courtyard right behind the Cobb House, and the older girls would use the gym at Jett. Later, when she taught at St. Aloysius, she organized tennis teams and got permission from the manager of the old Holiday Inn to use their courts.

“I’ve always loved sports,” she said, and that has been evident in her career. She coached peewee football and track and one of her students broke a state record. She not only coached tennis, she also played it and one year they “won the district or something. Sports kept me motivated and helped me relieve tensions.”

She didn’t spend all of her time as a youth on the courts — she also took music, learning to play the violin.

“I wasn’t good at it,” she said, “but I learned when I’m on key and not on key. I played in recitals and things like that. I did learn to appreciate music. But I was never very good. But think about the audience — it was kind of painful, it was terrible, awful.”

On top of that, she said, “I can’t sing worth a toot.”

Long before it became acceptable, or maybe fashionable, Sister Paulinus was involved personally in the ecumenical movement in Vicksburg. Her mother was Roman Catholic, so she was christened at St. Paul Catholic Church, but her father, who she thinks had been a Methodist, became an active communicant of Christ Episcopal Church. There’s a stained glass in memory of him there, and she recalls he made some “cone-shaped things” to place on the ends of the pews to hold candles during Christmas services, which she attended with him.

“My daddy always taught me my prayers when I was a little girl,” she said, but he also taught her something else. “He said, ‘You Catholics feel like nobody else can go to Heaven. Get that out of your system. Don’t look down your snoot at anybody else.’ There was a lot of narrowness in those days.”

Mr. Oakes’ daughter listened, for it has never been unusual to see her visiting other churches and calling upon the sick from any faith. She was a pacesetter in the ecumenical movement.

Becoming a nun, she said, was a decision she made partially because of the wonderful teachers — nuns — she had at St. Francis.

“I thought hmmm, I might want to grow up to be a missionary somewhere,” she recalled. “You know how that goes. Then somebody came and spoke to us and said, ‘You know, this — Mississippi — is missionary territory.’ I thought, well, maybe I’ll do that. So I did. That’ll be OK. I never did think of a lifetime of teaching school.”

In 1949 Mildred Oakes graduated from high school and soon went off to St.Louis, where she entered the order of the Sisters of Mercy and enrolled at Webster College and then Loyola where she earned a bachelor of arts degree.

She also took a new name when she took her vows, and as she was a communicant of St. Paul’s and her father was named Paul, the choice was a natural one. She would have chosen one more feminine, like Paula or Paulene, but those names were already taken. In later years she could have gone back to her baptismal name, but she had been Paulinus too long and she thought, “Don’t fight it.”

As a nun, she took a vow of poverty, of chastity and of obedience, and the Sisters of Mercy have an additional vow, which is service to the poor, the sick and the uneducated, “all of which I take very seriously,” she said.

That promise — or the scripture reference to it, which is found in Matthew — is included in the City Front floodwall mural depicting the Sisters of Mercy. The scripture reads, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.” The Biblical notation is on a food basket carried by one of the nuns in the painting.

After Sister Paulinus took her vows and graduated from college, she returned to Vicksburg for a short time.

She had not really planned a life in education, but soon she was off to Biloxi, teaching for and later becoming principal at a girls’ high school.

Next Sunday, Part 2

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.